- The Art of Vision: Ekphrasis in Medieval Literature and Culture ed. by Andrew James Johnston, Ethan Knapp, and Margitta Rouse
This collection examines Western European premodern ekphrasis, understood broadly as a verbal description of the visual. The work thus advances our understanding of visuality and culture, and so participates in conversations within medieval studies dating back at least to D.W. Robertson, E.H. Gombrich, and Edwin Panofsky. Informed by an understanding of the visual within the verbal (see, for example, works by W.J.T. Mitchell and by Mary Carruthers), recent scholarship has been exploring materiality, visuality, the body, and image. In this twelve-chapter collection, each essay offers a fresh, rigorous reading of ekphrasis, with Middle English examples most prominent. Four chapters focus on Chaucerian texts and two on Pearl, with additional chapters on Gottfried von Strassburg, Gavin Douglas, Christine de Pizan, Baudri de Bourgeuil, Spenser, late medieval/early modern drama, and representations of the face in late Middle English literature. Definitions of ekphrasis can vary, to some degree, from one essay to another; some essays rely on classical/medieval, rhetorical definitions of ekphrasis that include any vivid, poignant description of object, event, or person, while others deploy the term more narrowly in accord with twentieth-century definitions: namely, as a verbal description of visual art.
Arthurian scholars will appreciate Kathryn Starkey's essay, 'From Enslavement to Discernment: Learning to See in Gottfried's Tristan' (pp. 124–46). In it, she draws on the Progymnasmata (a late antique pedagogical collection) and on the work of classicist Simon Goldhill (1996) to establish ekphrasis as a verbal strategy that 'produces a viewing subject … poems … educate and direct viewing as a social and intellectual process … The moment of looking [is] a practice of interpreting, of reading—a way of seeing meaning.' And this 'critical gaze … creates and regulates the viewing subject'(p. 129, quoting Goldhill). Starkey considers the ekphrastic passages in Tristan to be pedagogical, asserting that they instruct readers about the potentially manipulative [End Page 82] and persuasive power of visual experience. She claims Gottfried draws the audience/reader emotionally into a scene using vivid description and then follows that with a commentary-infused depiction that distances the audience from the immediate event, object, person, or feeling just described. Starkey exposes this pattern in the flaying of the stag scene (Tristan ll. 2843–3080), Isolde's entrance at the court of Ireland (ll. 10889–10913ff.), a description of Petitcreiu (ll. 15811–44), and in several moments detailing Tristan and Isolde falling in love. For Starkey, ekphrasis, in Gottfried's text, teaches readers how to go beyond mere perception and momentary feeling to achieve a greater discernment and deeper understanding.
The four essays examining Chaucer include Sarah Stanbury's 'Multilingual Lists and Chaucer's "The Former Age"' (pp. 36–54), an insightful exploration of inventories and lexica where objects, actions, and linguistic etymologies create an ekphrastic representation of 'Englishness' within the poem. In 'Speaking Images? Iconographic Criticism and Chaucerian Ekphrasis' (pp. 55–76), John Bowers addresses ekphrasis in the Knight's Tale and the House of Fame to raise questions about the interpretation of images found in D.W. Robertson and V.A. Kolve (but also in more contemporary scholarship). He effectively challenges arguments that rest on an assumption of a monolithic late medieval audience/reader. Hans Jürgen Scheuer reads the Merchant's Tale, focusing on ekphrasis as the 'union of language and the inner senses' (p. 226). His essay, 'The Soul of Ekphrasis: Chaucer's Merchant's Tale and the Marriage of the Senses,' emphasizes the simultaneity of feeling and language in our understanding of 'the aesthetic' and therefore within the aesthetic features of ekphrasis (pp. 224–42). Ethan Knapp's essay, 'Faces in the Crowd: Faciality and Ekphrasis in Late Medieval England' (pp. 209–23) astutely investigates human faces in Chaucer, Gower, and Hoccleve, using close reading and Walter Benjamin...